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Dissident Republican Groups

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2009

1. What steps the Government are taking to prevent the recruitment of young people to dissident republican groups. (269403)

Dissident republican groups have nothing to offer but violence and suffering and are funded by criminal activity. Resources for the prevention of recruitment are shared between the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Office.

Is the Secretary of State aware of reports that dissident groups are using social networking sites, websites and blogs to recruit young people, some of whom may be as young as 13? Will he say what he is doing to tackle that and, in particular, whether he will consider taking down any offensive material promoting terrorism or violence that appears on social networking sites, or blocking access to any such websites?

I have been made aware of this, and the police are indeed investigating it. The site itself has vowed to remove materials that it considers illegal, defamatory or fraudulent or that infringe or violate any individual’s rights. There are clearly some legitimate concerns, and obviously the police will act if there is any evidence of activity of a criminal nature going on. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Whether this activity is done on social networking sites or in any other way, these organisations are criminal organisations and we need to ensure that young people realise that they are just that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one good way of helping to disarm the dissidents of some of their twisted logic would be for us to achieve completion on the political institutions and policing through the devolution of justice and policing? Does he also agree that a bad way of trying to convince young people to stay out of dissident violence is for some people to pretend that violence in the past was somehow morally justified or circumstantially different from the awful, brutal and futile violence now? It was always counter-productive—then and now—and young people see through hypocrisy and dishonesty when it comes from an older generation.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. I simply say that it is incumbent on all of us to ensure in whatever way we can that we reach young people and make them realise that these criminal groups have nothing to offer them now and will have nothing to offer them in the future. I also agree with him that we should now complete devolution, because that will clearly be the strongest signal of all that politicians in Northern Ireland have the confidence to say to young people, “Leave the future to the legitimate, elected people of Northern Ireland.”

Would this be a fitting moment to pay tribute to Sir Hugh Orde, who has constantly warned us about dissident republicans and the threats that they pose? Has he not been an exemplary leader of the PSNI and given incalculably good service to the people of the United Kingdom throughout his period in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for this opportunity to endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the contribution of Sir Hugh Orde as Chief Constable. For seven years he has provided outstanding leadership and helped to change the face of policing in Northern Ireland. That is absolutely not in any way to diminish the extraordinary work that was done by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but it is to recognise that, in the face of the Patten report and the changes that came about, and by building confidence across the entire community in Northern Ireland, he has led that change and been a great leader. We owe him a very great debt indeed.

May I agree with my right hon. Friend about Hugh Orde? As Secretary of State, I could not have had a better or more astute Chief Constable with whom to deal.

On the dissident threat, does my right hon. Friend agree that it was aimed not least at trying to torpedo the agreement between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein, and between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, on the programme and principle of the devolution of policing and justice? Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that none of the parties is deflected by dissident attacks and tragic murders from pursuing their course and completing the process of devolution that is so essential to entrenching stability and peace in Northern Ireland?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is very clear that the criminals behind the so-called dissident attacks set out to destabilise and damage the confidence of the people in Northern Ireland in the peace process and the political process. Of course what they also did, regrettably, although I continue to pay tribute to those who were murdered, was reveal the strength, depth and width of the political process and the peace process. It is stronger today than at any point before, and people in Northern Ireland can have great confidence in their political institutions.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the security forces informed two of their former members in recent days that they were to be murdered by the so-called dissident republican terrorists? Failure to take resolute action to eliminate terrorism will consign the people of Northern Ireland to more years of terrorism. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the light of the severe threat to former members of the security forces, they will be granted the right to hold personal protection weapons?

I do not think that it is appropriate for me to comment in the House on individual circumstances and whether individuals might be subject to threats. However, I am prepared to say that we take threats extremely seriously, and the Chief Constable will take all necessary and proportionate measures to protect individuals who may be the subject of those threats. That is why, for example, he is reviewing measures on the retention and use of personal protection weapons.

I am sure that the House is looking forward to the announcements later today from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has had the opportunity to examine our proposals to the Treasury for additional help to ensure that we have a police service in Northern Ireland that can deal with all criminal elements, including threats from so-called paramilitaries.

First, I would like to be associated with earlier speakers’ compliments to Sir Hugh Orde on his great work in Northern Ireland. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Apropos the question, does the Secretary of State know that a consequence of the horrific murders of the soldiers and the police officer is a tendency for police officers to withdraw from the communities that they serve, resulting in an increase in crime and antisocial behaviour? If that continues, there is a danger of recreating no-go areas, which we will not tolerate or accept. Such withdrawal is understandable for personal protection purposes, but it has to be addressed. I ask the Secretary of State to use his best endeavours to ensure that that tendency and drift is stopped and reversed because it assists the recruitment of dissident republicans, including very young people, in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pays tribute to the work of Sir Hugh Orde—I imagine that many hon. Members wish to endorse his comments. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. It is incredibly important that we all do all we can to reach those young people and make them realise that they have no future in engaging in criminal activity. On policing areas that may be especially affected, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that one of the distinctions of Hugh Orde’s policing leadership has been to ensure that the officers of the PSNI carry out community, normal policing. We are doubly resolved to ensure that it remains good community and neighbourly policing, and that there will be no no-go areas in Northern Ireland.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and the Secretary of State about Sir Hugh Orde, who is moving to another job. He did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances, and we should all be grateful for his work. We wish him the very best in his new endeavours.

The most effective way in which to prevent young people from joining dissident groups is a strong legal deterrent, with a very real prospect of arrest and conviction. Under existing legislation, some individuals who are linked to terrorism and convicted of firearms offences have received only suspended sentences. Is the Secretary of State considering reviewing that legislation?

I am always happy to review legislation, with a mind to improving it and making it more effective. However, let us be clear: between the signing of the Good Friday agreement and today, there has not been a significant increase in the numbers of people joining so-called dissident organisations, which we know to be criminal. That does not mean to say that—as with any regrettable gang culture—young, impressionable, alienated, albeit completely wrong-headed, people may feel disposed to be recruited to those gangs. We will take any measures that we can to discourage them—whether legislation, working with the Executive or other steps. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that one of those arrested for the murder of one person in the attacks in early March will be charged with being a member of a proscribed organisation.

Let me look at the issue from a slightly different angle. Following the Omagh bombings, the former Prime Minister passed legislation changing the rules on admissible evidence. However, it was so unworkable that it was repealed weeks after he left office. Is the Secretary of State considering legislating for new and usable powers to curb terrorist activity effectively?

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have a strong record of working closely with the Chief Constable and the PSNI to ensure that he has all the tools available, whether in legislation or resources, as the hon. Gentleman will discover later today, to achieve public order and public safety. I am prepared to look at any appropriate, proportionate measure. However, for the benefit of the House, I would just say to him that, in relation to the attacks that happened at the beginning of March, the PSNI has made some spectacular progress, which has led to the arrest of individuals and charges of murder in the case of both attacks. I am confident that the police service has what it needs, but I am always prepared to enter into more negotiations.

May I associate those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches with the comments made earlier about the ending of Sir Hugh Orde’s tenure? He was always vigorous in making the case for the proper resourcing of the PSNI. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Treasury will not see his moving on as an opportunity to diminish the resources given to policing and, in particular, to community safety partnerships in tackling the recruitment of young people to dissident republican groups. Does the Secretary of State agree that community safety partnerships have a particularly important role, as do all parties in all communities in Northern Ireland?

Of course community safety partnerships have an extremely important role to play, both in the context of the resources in the original comprehensive spending review settlement for the PSNI and crucially, as the hon. Gentleman will see from what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor may have to say later today, in relation to the police service and the resources required in Northern Ireland to meet the current criminal threats that are operating there. The hon. Gentleman will see that the Government are indeed a staunch friend of law and order in Northern Ireland.